During the summer of 2011 shortly after the free agent fenzy, pundits all around the NHL scoffed at what the Florida Panthers and General Manager Dale Tallon accomplished. Bringing in more than 10 new faces to the team with trades and free agent signings, most believed there was no way the team was going to mesh quickly enough to compete for a playoff spot, let alone a division championship. Craig Button, Mike Milbury among others were all driving the bandwagon bus of doom and gloom that was headed straight to South Florida. Too many new faces, too many uncertainties, a new coaching staff, and last place finish the season before were too much to overcome.
Chemistry was the biggest concern, which is normally a valid point, yet many of the players acquired at the time had played together at some point in their careers. While I’m not going to go down the list, it didn’t take a long time for coach Kevin Dineen to sort out his lines, his defensive pairings, and his goaltending rotation, before the Panthers got off to a quick start, which catapulted them into first place in the Southeast division for most of the season. Ultimately they won their franchise first ever division championship as neither Washington nor Tampa Bay could catch up. The lines clicked, the defence was solid, and the goaltending led by veteran Jose Theodore as the starter, and Scott Clemmensen as the backup surprised everyone with their above average play.
The sour taste of losing in game seven of the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last season (in double overtime), apparently has created a drunken stupor, causing a worrisome slow start to the season. After winning the home opener against the Carolina Hurricanes by a score of 5-1, the wheels have essentially fallen off, as the offence, defence and special teams have become invisible. Or, stuck in cement. The four games since have seen the Panthers fall to Ottawa and Montreal on the road, and Ottawa and Philadelphia at home, while being outscored 18-3. The best played game of those four was the Ottawa game at home, yet mistakes and a lack of offensive chances, and Craig Anderson prevented the Panthers from winning that game.
Certainly the rugged schedule could be blamed as a factor with Saturday’s game being the 5th in 8 days, but all teams are dealing with that. Also, having injuries to four of your regular top six forward are another factor, but as coach Kevin Dineen said after the 7-1 whipping from the Flyers:
“Injuries had absolutely nothing to do with what happened. We got our tails handed to us in every way.”
The Panthers haven’t lost four games without getting at least one point since the last days of the 2010-2011 season when Dale Tallon purged the roster, which led to the frenzy of signings that summer. It had to be done. Now the question is, what’s next? Each of these four games have all had similar elements to them. Slow starts, mistakes, defensively out of position, losing battles to the puck, poor power play, and an overall sloppyness. Ed Jovanovski commented that “we need to be better in all three zones”. That kind of puts things in perspective.
If there is one bright spot, it has been the goaltending of Jose Theodore. Before you “jump” all over that, since he was pulled after the first period Saturday against Philadelphia, most of the goals scored against him have not been his fault. One goal in particular in the Flyer game, Theo was clearly screened and had no chance at all of making a save. He has actually looked very sharp in all the games he’s played in, especially both Ottawa games. He has faced a lot of vulcanized rubber so far, and has received very little support from his team. Last season Theodore kept the Panthers in more games than they should have been in, and in many cases was able to at least get them to overtime, or the shootout so they could at least pick up a point. So far this season, despite his solid play, the offence has been invisible.
The line combinations aren’t clicking. The passes are either too far in front, or too far behind. There’s no energy, no jump, and very little pressure being put on the other team’s defence. And did I mention the lack of physical play? The line that we all thought would provide some offensive spark was the Peter Mueller, Alex Kovalev and Jonathan Huberdeau line, which has been silent since the opener, especially since Kovalev is now playing on the top line with both Kris Versteeg and Stephen Weiss out with injuries.
What seemed to be clicking last year isn’t. What looked so smooth and symmetrical last year has disintegrated. Five games into a 48 game season with a possible 10 points available, the Panthers have only two. The team was given the day off on Sunday, and will practice today, before their game against Tampa Tuesday night. Then the Cats come home Thursday to face the Winnipeg Jets, before embarking on a three game road trip that takes them to Buffalo, Winnipeg, and Philadelphia. Playing with desperation so early in the season might seem a bit schizophrenic, but not when you hear Tomas Fleischmann comment:
“You have to panic right now,” winger Tomas Fleischmann said quietly. “We have to bring everything we have. It’s a short season. We have to panic right now.”